June 1, 2015
Amuse-Bouche
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sandwich « ramen » au fromage grillé
(grilled cheese “ramen” sandwich)
A month or so before Yoshiko died, she suddenly stopped eating and drinking. She was in her nineties and had lived in a nursing home for many years. She was in good overall health, but her severe osteoporosis often made her extremely uncomfortable.
Yoshiko also had dementia. I can’t say that she suffered from dementia. It didn’t seem to bother her one bit. The dementia didn’t make her unpleasant; it made her repetitive. I accused her of suffering from ground‑hog minute, my term for extreme short‑term memory loss. When I could get her to use her long‑term memory and talk about her youth, I was in for an amazing fifteen minutes or so. Even though much of her childhood had been difficult, her skills as a raconteur radiated when she shared her ancient history.
When I heard that Yoshiko had stopped eating, I did what anyone would do in the twenty‑first century: I googled “elderly who stop eating.” I expected to find some Latin‑sounding term for the medical condition of self‑starvation. I didn’t. I did find multiple references to how the body would shutdown in an orderly manner, and how she would have no more pain than she already had. I eventually found one author that referred to death by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking as VSED, but that acronym doesn't seem to be universally accepted.
Although there are people who consciously make the decision to die by not eating, I think in Yoshiko’s case, her body made the decision for her. She just didn’t try to fight what her body wanted to do. I saw her a few weeks before her dying started, and she seemed in good spirits.
Her children live some distance away from Yoshiko’s nursing home. The closest could get to her bedside in about two hours, the farthest required at east twenty‑five hours. All seven children had gathered for a reunion about eight weeks before she died, and her rapid decline started almost immediately after the last child, her youngest and the one that lives farthest away, left her company. By the time see died, five of her children had managed to get back to her bedside. She didn’t die lonely or alone.
All this came to mind when I was thinking about grilled cheese sandwiches and the part that they have played in my culinary life. If I was in the situation where I had to choose my last meal, would it be a grilled cheese sandwich or macaroni and cheese. I liked my mother’s mac and cheese when I was growing up: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese modified with butter, milk, and Velveeta. I’ve liked most of the many other versions I’ve tasted since my childhood. My favorite is from a hundred‑year‑old French recipe, I’ve also created a modern version. But after further thought, a grilled cheese sandwich would be my last meal.
My mother’s grilled cheese sandwiches were made with American cheese on buttered, white sandwich bread. The assembled sandwich was toasted gently in a frying pan.  When I worked at Kodak in Rochester in the early seventies, I used a crustier bread and mild cheddar cheese. The sandwiches were “cooked” in a microwave oven in the company cafeteria. The cheese would be cold in some places and heated to the point of separation in others. The bread was always soggy. The sandwiches still tasted good.
My current grilled cheese sandwich is made with commercial San Francisco sourdough bread and unsalted butter. The cheese is either generic pepper jack or Kraft American Singles. The sandwiches are fried in a dry, covered pan. I never make enough of them.
After grilled cheese and macaroni and cheese, my next choice for a last meal would be a decent hamburger. I’ve had many good versions over the years, and although I tend to be a traditionalist, I try every new variety I can find. A couple of years ago, ramen burgers became popular, but I hadn’t eaten one until recently.
Earlier this year, I took a class from Mari Takahashi, the former chef of Nombe in San Francisco, to learn her version of the ramen burger. She fashioned her buns from ramen. She uses a combination of wagyu beef and pork belly for the meat. For the condiments, there’s all the usual stuff plus roasted garlic and a couple of other things I can’t remember. The burger was tasty, but I wondered if I could successfully miniaturize it for an amuse‑bouche.
My first attempts at making the noodle bun were less than satisfying. I started with commercially available noodles. Some didn’t hold together well. Some were too soft. Some were too fragile. All were too coarse. I decided that I needed to make my ramen from scratch. I found a ramen recipe on the Lucky Peach website that looked reasonable. In the end, I mostly used their ratio of flour to soda and water. Their method called for a lot of hard work and sweat; I’m too decorous for that.
The morning I got the “bun” recipe working, I wanted to try one right away, but I didn’t have any of the remaining ingredients that a ramen burger would require. I did have an open package of Kraft American Singles. It didn’t take me more than a moment to switch my goal from a burger to a grilled cheese sandwich.
15 slices
Kraft American Singles
vegetable oil
for ramen:
100 g (scant 34 c)
all‑purpose flour
512 g (1 t)
sodium carbonate (see note)
50 ml (3 T+1 t)
boiling water
cornstarch
1. To prepare the ramen: Place the flour and sodium carbonate in the bowl of a food processor. With the processor is running, slowly add the hot water. When the dough comes together or just stays uniformly “sandy”, let the processor run for another minute or two.
2. Transfer the dough to a piece of plastic wrap. Squeeze the dough into a flat disk, and wrap tightly. Refrigerate for at least an hour.
3. Bring a large pot of salted water to boiling.
4. In the meantime, roll the dough by hand to a size that will easily fit in the rollers of a pasta machine. Use the pasta machine to roll the dough into a long, thin sheet. On my machine, this is the second thinnest spacing available. Finally slit the sheet into fine noodles. Dust the ramen with cornstarch to keep it separated.
5. Cook the ramen until it starts to appear translucent. Drain but don’t rinse the cooked ramen.
6. Using shallow, 5‑cm (2‑in) round rings, form the ramen into almost‑loose disks on a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat. Freeze the disks. Optional: Prior to freezing, dry the disks for 4 minutes on each side in a 180 °C (355 °F) oven. This helps the disks hold their shape a little bit better.
7. To cook the sandwiches for serving: Heat a frying pan over medium heat.
8. Fold the cheese slices diagonally into triangles. Cut a single 4‑cm (1916‑in) round disk from each triangle.
9. Add the frozen ramen disks to the frying pan along with a few drops of oil dripped over each disk. When the disks have browned on the first side, flip them over. Place a cheese disk on half the ramen disks. Flip the other ramen disks over onto the cheese to close the sandwich. When the cheese starts to melt, remove the sandwiches from the frying pan, and drain on absorbent paper.
10. Serve warm.
Note: To produce sodium carbonate, bake baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) on a foil‑wrapped baking sheet for 1 hour at 120 °C (250 °F).
Yield: enough for 15 sandwiches.

© 2015 Peter Hertzmann. All rights reserved.